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Roman Vishniac

(1897-1990)


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Roman Vishniac was a Russian-American photographer, accomplished biologist, linguist, art historian, and philosopher. As a photographer he was best known for his photographs of Central and Eastern European Jewry prior to the Holocaust, however has also made significant scientific contributions to the fields of photomicroscopy and time-lapse photography. Extremely interested in history, especially Jewish history, Vishniac had a strong Jewish identity and was a Zionist later in life. He won international acclaim for his photographs from the shetl and Jewish ghettos, his celebrity portraits, and images of microscopic biology.

Vishniac was born on August 19, 1897 in Pavlosk, near St. Petersburg, and grew up in Moscow. Few Jews were permitted to live inside the city of Moscow, but since Vishniac’s father, Solomon, was a wealthy umbrella manufacturer and his mother, Manya, was the daughter of affluent diamond dealers, the family was granted permission to reside within the city. Vishniac’s fascination with biology and photography began at an early age. When his grandmother gave him a microscope for his seventh birthday, Vishniac hooked it up to a camera and photographed the muscles in a cockroach’s leg magnified 150 times. He used this microscope extensively, viewing and photographing everything he could find, from dead insects to animal scales, to pollen and protozoa.

Beginning in 1914, Vishniac spent six years at Shanyavsky Institute (now University) in Moscow. While enrolled there, he served in the Tsarist, Kerensky and Soviet armies. He earned a Ph.D. in zoology and became an assistant professor of biology at the Institute. As a graduate student, he worked with prestigious biologist Nikolai Koltzoff, experimenting with inducing metamorphosis in axolotl, a species of aquatic salamander. While his experiments were a success, Dr. Vishniac was not able to publish a paper detailing his findings due to the chaos in Russia and his results were eventually independently duplicated. In spite of this, he went on to take a three-year course in medicine.

In 1918, the Third Russian Revolution triggered a rise in anti-Semitism that caused Vishniac’s immediate family to relocate to Berlin.  He followed soon after and married Luta (Leah) Bagg.  They had two children, Mara and Wolf. Vishniac worked various jobs in order to support his family. In his spare time, he studied Far Eastern Art at the University of Berlin, researched endocrinology and optics, and took some photography.  It was also during this time that Vishniac began his public speaking career by joining the Salamander Club, where he gave lectures on naturalism.

Between 1935 and 1939, as anti-Semitism was growing in Germany, Vishniac traveled to Eastern Europe and took his acclaimed photographs of the culture of poor Jews in mountainous villages and urban ghettos. At first commissioned by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee as part of a fundraising initiative, Vishniac was so affected by the project that he chose to continue it even after the commission was complete. He traveled to the ghettos of Russia, Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Lithuania for years after he worked for the Committee. Aware of Hitler’s mission to exterminate the Jews, Vishniac was intent on preserving the memory of the Jewish people. He also hoped to promote awareness of the atrocities that were occurring in Nazi territories. In late 1938, Vishniac sneaked into Zbaszyn, an internment camp in Germany near the border, where Jews awaited deportment to Poland. After photographing the “filthy barracks” for two days, he escaped. Vishniac then submitted his photographs to the League of Nations as proof of the existence of such camps.

In order to take the more than 16,000 photographs of Eastern European Jewry, Vishniac used a hidden camera, both to avoid charges of spying and because many Orthodox Jews would not have their picture taken. He was arrested eleven times during this time for taking pictures, often because he was thought to be spying. Vishniac managed to preserve 2,000 of these photographs, hidden by himself and his family and smuggled into America by Walter Bierer through Cuba. The surviving photographs would later be showcased as part of one-man shows at Columbia University, the Jewish Museum, the International Center of Photography, as well as at some other institutions.

While visiting Paris in 1940, Vishniac was arrested by the Pétain police for being a “stateless person,” and was interned at Camp du Ruchard, a deportation camp in Clichy, France. He stayed there for three months until his wife was able to obtain visas for the family to move to the United States. His parents remained in Europe. Vishniac’s mother died from cancer in 1941 and his father spent the war in hiding in France. Vishniac sewed some of his negatives into his clothing when he came to America, but his father hid the bulk of the surviving negatives with him in France.

In 1940,Vishniac settled in New York City with his family. He spoke German, Russian, and Yiddish, but no English and found it difficult to find employment. Vishniac took some portraits for mostly foreign clients, but generally struggled to find work. It was during this time that Vishniac took his celebrated portrait of Albert Einstein. In 1943, his work on Eastern European Jewry was exhibited at Teacher’s College, Columbia University. Vishniac hoped to promote awareness of the plight of Eastern European Jews, and even wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt, then First Lady, to request she visit his exhibit. 

In 1946, Vishniac divorced Luta and a year later married Edith Ernst, an old family friend. A few years later, he gave up portraiture and went on to do freelance work in the field of photomicroscopy. In 1947, A Vanished World was published, one of the first pictorial documentations of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe during that time period. Ten years later, Vishniac was appointed to be research associate at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and in 1961 became a professor of biological education. He later became “Chevron Professor of Creativity” at Pratt Institute. Vishniac also taught Oriental and Russian art, general philosophy and religion in science, specifically focusing on Jewish topics, ecology, numismatics, photography, and general science at City University of New York, Case Western Reserve University, and several other institutions.

Vishniac was the project director and filmmaker for the Living Biology series sponsored by the National Science Foundation, which consisted of seven films focused on cell biology, organs and systems, embryology, evolution, genetics, ecology, botany, the animal world, and the microbial world. He was a pioneer in time-lapse cinematography and light-interruption photography and in the color photomicroscopy of living organisms. Vishniac’s main area of research was in marine microbiology, the physiology of ciliates, and circulation systems in unicellular plants. He hypothesized that the first living organisms were muticellular structures that emerged at many different times and places by varying biochemical pathways. In 1971, Building Blocks of Life was published, documenting Vishniac’s color microphotographs of proteins, vitamins, and hormones.

Vishniac received the Memorial Award of the American Society of Magazine Photographers in 1956 and was the winner of the visual arts category of awards of the Jewish Book Council in 1984. His photograph, The Only Flowers of her Youth, was acknowledged as “most impressive” by the International Photographic Exhibition in 1952 and he received the Grand Prize of Art in Photography from the New York Coliseum. Vishniac also received Honorary Doctoral degrees from the Rhode Island School of Design, Columbia College of Art, and the California College of Art. When he died of colon cancer on January 22, 1990, his collection of artifacts included a 14th-century Buddha, Chinese tapestries, Japanese swords, various antique microscopes, valued old maps and venerable books.


Sources: Wikipedia, Wabash College, High Beam Encyclopedia

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